Roland MC202 Microcomposer
Seems strange that only a few years ago the word computer was considered so foul that to utter the noun in church guaranteed three thousand years of purgatory or a possible residency in the Old Nick Eternity Ballroom playing your left leg with a poker.
Now, of course, fashion has shifted and if you haven't got at least 64K of memory space keeping track of the groceries, then you're not a fit civilian for the ways of the world.
But when Roland first dipped into the vast potential of chip controlled music making, the term computer remained a phrase to be found on toilet walls beneath dubious claims as to the integrity of Gladys Twinge from 4B.
So, though their experiments shared many of the theories and circuits to be found in personal computers of the day, they emerged into the music world under the less daunting name of MicroComposers — a microcomputer dedicated to composing music.
First was the MC8, followed a couple of years later by the MC4. Both operated as synthesiser instructors collecting all the information you fed them, then passing it on to an exterior machine via links to the gate and control voltage inputs thereby converting numbers to sound.
What fascinated owners (and lusters) was the degree of control: the fact that you could cause a synthesiser to play highly complex and technically advanced music with no manual skill. And since the detail within the programming permitted subtleties of timing equivalent to tiny fractions of a second, you could be a one fingered Bach or a ham fisted Peterson... well, almost.
Potty classical types would say that computer controlled music was perfect for rock and roll because of its inherent repetition, but they are twatknobs of the first order and should not be entertained. The MicroComposers were as delicate, shaded and interpretive as you cared to make them, or they could be rigidly mechanical, if that was your fancy.
This year saw the release of the MC202, recognising that the principles of the expensive MC4 and MC8 were in demand from those of us without record company assistance. Of course, it can't attain the full facilities of the '4', has to make do with less memory space, and is restricted to controlling two voices at once. The MC8 was eight, the MC4 was four, no prizes for guessing.
But I'd hazard that the MC202 is going to do more to create new songs, bands and sounds than either of its predecessors, mainly because it places that new technology in the hands of the average punter who, as we all know, is the one with the brightest ideas.
Just like the Yamaha DX7 reviewed last month, it breaks a barrier bringing the professional sounds and standards of expensive machines down to an affordable level. So less drivel, more evaluation.
To be honest, the 202 looks terrifying. It's not much more than 2in thick, measures 13½ in across by 8in wide, and is packed solid with sliders, switches, knobs and a miniature keyboard.
That's mainly because the MC202 is also an SH101. The top half of the grey plastic panel carries all the sliders that you'd find on a Roland SH101 mono synth (see our supplement section for a longer review). The only missing items are the modulation and performance controls.
The 202 can record two channels of music, one of which links directly to this built-in 101, the other controlling an external synth via CV and gate outs. Both can run outside keyboards, should you wish.
Briefly, you're presented with rate and delay for the LFO; modulation, range and pulse width for the VCO; a mixer for the square wave, ramp and sub octave waveforms; frequency, resonance, envelope amount, modulation and keyboard tracking for the filter; and finally attack, decay, sustain and release sliders for the envelope generator. The pulse width can be swept by the LFO or the envelope generator, the sub oscillator can be a square wave one octave down, a square wave two octaves down or a thinner pulse wave again two octaves down, and the voltage controlled amplifier will take its instructions from the gate or the envelope generator.
So much for the top half. For opinions on sound see our SH101 review in full, but there are certainly no complaints about the versatility or the convincing punch and thickness.
Along the bottom is a two and a half octave miniature keyboard comprising quarter inch wide black and white plastic pads. If you were a loony, you could play these and never touch the rest of the MicroComposer, but I personally wouldn't share a bus stop with you.
Ranged around this keyboard are 18 blue plastic buttons and directly above it is a 2in long liquid crystal display. Nearly every button has a dual function. Even the keys double up.
In the proper mode the first nine white keys feed in info on note duration — preset values for a minim, quaver, demi-semi quaver for example — and the remaining ten are numbered from 0 to 9 acting as a calculator style pad.
Thing One. Pitch information is relatively easy to understand. You press a C on the keyboard and a C will appear in the liquid crystal display with a number in front of it to say which octave you've played.
Timing is more involved. Roland have split the task in two — step time and gate time. Gate is the length of time taken until the next note sounds. It creates room for the note, if you like. Step is the length of time that note actually sounds, so it may be a staccato punch followed by a half second of silence when no other sound occupies that gate area. For example a breve (the longest one) has a step time of 192, while a demi-semi-quaver (damned quick by anyone's reckoning) is 6.
Though step time generally plays the most important part in determining the feel and timing of a piece, it's the gate that most often introduces 'human' idiosyncrasies. If you've got a repetitive bass line, for example, it's the short gate time of the final note that makes it sound as if you've 'snatched' it off the keyboard before dashing back to the beginning of the riff.
It's with this assortment of buttons that you compose your music.
After a month of fiddling with the 202, one of the principal revelations that dawned in the cranium was this — it is a musical instrument, at least by one definition. Because the technology is so open to expression and interpretation, everyone is going to find their own way of 'playing' the memory chips and so create their own style of MicroComposer music.
For example, there are three (very) basic methods of delivering your ideas to the printed circuits.
1) Do it all by numbers. First play the notes, then edit in the step times, then edit in the gate times.
2) Do it all by feel. Set the built in metronome running and play the right riff at the right rhythm, preferably on a real keyboard linked to the back. That way the 202 works as a real time sequencer.
3) Cheat. First feed in the notes THEN set the metronome running and tap in the rhythm on a separate button so all you need worry about is the proper timing, not the proper pitch.
For me, method three was by far the best and seemed to draw the most from the 202. But other exponents will prefer the alternatives — a drummer or guitarist with no technique could adore system one, a keyboard player with faultless fingers would find method two speedy.
Thing Two. Listen to what you've played. When I went for technique three the 'real time' playback occasionally seemed sluggish or hesitant, so to tidy it up, I'd work my way through the step times of each note, correcting them to the nearest full figure. So a step of 26 would go down to 24 (the equivalent of a quaver), a 46 would go up to a 48 (a crotchet), and so on. It made the lines crisper and tighter. The psychological angle is one of expectation. Does an edited bass line sound better from a 202 simply because you expect a sequencer to be clipped and mechanical? That's when you have to forget the numbers and judge the feel.
A few brief moans at this juncture. The metronome issues a series of blips and beeps that I found difficult to follow and I often leapt in too soon or too late. No matter how fast you hit the stop button after playing your sequence, the 202 is fond of finishing with a very long step time, and you invariably end up editing the final note in the run. And why doesn't the metronome appear in the headphones when you don them?
I found it irritating that the only speedy way of clearing the memory and starting afresh was to turn the power off and then on, thereby delivering an evil click across the speakers.
However, on to phase two. Once you've mastered the art of recording single lines, you'll want to build them into song arrangements. The most useful facilities here are Bar and Copy. Bar, as it suggests, splits your composition into manageable and sensibly timed chunks. Copy allows you to take, say, bar two and repeat it for bar six, 12, 48 or whatever, thus saving a great expanse of time.
Thing Three. This doesn't simply mean that the MC202 goes back, finds bar two and plays it again. The information is encoded afresh at the new location, so you could return to bar two, edit it to be quite different, yet the original version would still be played at location six, 12, 48 and so on. The edit won't touch them.
Searching for bars is an intriguing process, mainly because there are so many ways of doing it. First, you could dial up the number of the bar you want by pressing the shift key (which swaps the 202 switches to the second of their dual functions), then using the white keys to enter the necessary figure. Or you could use the forward and backward measure buttons to approach the proper point one bar at a time. Lastly, the forward and backward buttons for the step section — which normally work through the sequence a note at a time — can be driven crazy. When both of them are held down at once, 202 will hurtle through its sequence emitting a bleep each time it comes across a bar mark.
Inserting and deleting new notes or entire bars is standard, and as with most other functions, nothing happens until you punch the enter button. So there shouldn't be too many accidental erasures.
Additional acoustic decorations include accent and portamento. The accent can be applied to stress notes within a sequence — as many as you like. They'll all be amplified by the same amount set by a control knob on the front panel. This is one area where the MC4 is notably more sophisticated as it boasts facilities for setting the volume of each note, as well as its pitch and timing, greatly expanding the possibilities for dynamics. Portamento works in a similar way, and again there's a control on the front for amount. Those panel knobs are completed by fine tune, tempo adjuster (the 202 will display its tempo value on the LCD screen), and master volume.
Its memory capacity is 2600 steps which translates as 160 measures of eighth notes — each of the levels of information about pitch, step time and gate time needing its own share of the memory. The inclusion of a bar requires a third of a step. I never exhausted it... but if you do...
Point Four. Outside. So far I've avoided mentioning channel two which is the other half of the MC202. The memory can be split to record two sequences which are nonetheless linked by the same interior clock pulses so they can be played side by side and stay synchronised. Once the music is loaded and 'barred' in channel one, the same bar divisions will appear on the screen for channel two so you are, again, constructing everything by numbers.
But once more I found it easier to cheat: you can listen to channel one while entering a real sequence from a keyboard or popping the tap keys then tidying up the program later on. It's a lot easier than storing a parallel set of digits in your head.
Even then the 202 hasn't reached its limits.
One of the standard professional recording practices is the art of syncing — of placing a code on one track of a tape which can later be used to control drum machines, sequencers, even other tape decks so they run at the correct speed.
For the first time the 202 brings that ploy within the reach of the home recording market. It emits a sync code which will run say, a Drumatix, a TB303 Bass Line or another MC202. So, with adequate patience you could build up a chordal synth arrangement over a 4-track cassette deck, or at least put down an electronic reference mark. How do you feel about overdubbing drum machines? It's all up for grabs.
Finally there's the Roland's own internal tape load system. Dumping all your sequence information on tape is essential practice for two reasons. A) you'll obviously want to save your compositions, they would have taken you long enough to collect. B) perfecting a long piece of music is a time devouring process and if you convert 'the story so far' to a C60 it means you can always come back and work up the finishing touches at a later date.
Needless to say, the 202 forgets everything as soon as you switch off the power, though for the sake of the batteries it is possible to disconnect the synth from the six 1.5V cells so just the memory is kept alive.
1. DON'T expect to do everything at once. Even after a month I was still discovering tricks and you WILL eventually develop your own playing techniques.
2. DON'T treat the 202 as an overgrown sequencer. With experience you'll be able to control the timing for a more human feel than you might expect.
3. DO think of it as another player and consider how a guitarist, violinist or bass player would approach the notes you've programmed in. DON'T let your own habits dictate.
4. DO plan for the future, buy it with a mind for what else it can do, controlling drum machines or other sequencers and syncing to tape.
5. DO think very carefully about teaming it with another synth, preferably an SH101, otherwise real time programming on the mini keyboard is going to be slow, tiresome and inaccurate. And the MC202 isn't.
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